Burnet Institute laboratory Head Dr Paul Gilson regards as an ‘important breakthrough’ research suggesting that resistance to the antimalarial medication, Atovaquone, can’t spread to the general human population.
Atovaquone was widely prescribed when it came onto the market in 2000, in part because it’s safe for children and pregnant women to use.
But its popularity quickly diminished as the malaria parasite developed resistance, giving rise to concerns the resistance would spread from person to person.
Research conducted by scientists from Eijkman Institute in Indonesia and University of Melbourne and published in the journal Science appears to demonstrate, however, that resistance does not spread.
The research shows that while some malaria parasites developed a genetic mutation that protected them against Atovaquone inside their mammalian hosts, the mutation killed the parasites in the mosquito life phase.
Co-principal investigator Professor Geoffrey McFadden from University of Melbourne described it as a ‘genetic trap’.
“The parasites develop this mutation which confers them the ability to not be killed by the drug and so those mutants then become survivors in that person and the drug no longer kills them,” Professor McFadden told the ABC.
“That becomes a severe problem for that person obviously, but our results suggest that that person cannot pass those drug-resistant parasites onto anybody else in their community, in their village, in their country or further afield than that.
“So, it’s a trap. The resistant parasites are trapped inside that person.
“The person will need to be treated with a different drug at that point but the resistance can’t escape.”
Dr Gilson, who was not involved in the research, told The Conversation the findings are an important breakthrough in malaria treatment.
“The big picture is that Atovaquone, once thought of as a second rate drug because parasites can easily become resistant to it, might be extremely effective at stopping malaria transmission and could therefore be important for disease eradication,” he said.
Professor McFadden said the research shows that the phasing out and limiting of certain effective anti-malarial drugs may be unnecessary.
“This drug could be used more broadly than people thought and I think we can apply it more safely,” he said.
“It’s come off patent and that means that generics are being produced. We would like to think that it can be used a lot more widely.”